Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Tea Party, Religious Fundamentalism, and the GOP

Now that some time has passed and social scientists are beginning to accumulate significant and meaningful research data upon which to understand and evaluate the Tea Party movement and its adherents through the prism of foundational social science research methodologies:

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.


Eric said...

Well if the wise and non-partisan social scientists hired by the New York Times to conduct polls and extract generalizations about conservatives say it's true...

Huck said...

Eric - You can scoff if you want, but Robert Putnam and David Campbell are serious scholars. They weren't "hired" by the NYT to conduct polls; they did that as part of their research for their book on religion and politics in America. Robert Putnam, particularly, is the pioneering scholar on the idea of "social capital" and his work is highly regarded by social scientists of all political and ideological persuasions for its scientific rigor and its objectivity.

And notice that I never said anything was true, only that respected social science researchers are accumulating meaningful data on the Tea Party, the Republican Party, and religion. Although I haven't read the book that this research is based upon, I'd be curious to do so with you. It's certainly not to be simply dismissed as liberal claptrap.

Eric said...

I didn't know those were the pollsters. I actually have read one of Putnam's books, 'Bowling Alone', about the decline of "community" in America since the 50's. It has been a long time since I read it, but one thing I remember thinking was that the author did a really good job of collecting all kinds of demographic information about changes in communities over time, and then proceeded to link cause and effect to those demographics according to his own untested biases, and presenting his hypotheseses as facts while failing to discuss or even acknowledge alternate explanations for the facts he had gathered (one thing I clearly remember was that he never once mentioned or discussed growing population density as a contributor to the problems he saw, but was quick to infer how racist Americans must be for withdrawing from community involvement during a time of growing community diversity).

Huck said...

Eric - In "Bowling Alone," Putnam interprets the available data that he was able to collect and makes hypotheses about what motivates the behaviors that this data reveals. As he himself admits, he "has a case to make" (in other words he looks at the data and suggests what this data reveals to him); but he also acknowledges his "obligation to present all relevant evidence" he found, "exculpatory as well as incriminating." And he is all the time transparent in his methodology.

As any good researcher interested in truth, Putnam would not be averse to any well-argued criticism. He never claimed that his argument was absolute, critique-proof truth. So your comment of population density as a potential explanatory variable is something to bring up that Putnam will have to address. And your criticism of his suggestion that racism may play a part in the contraction of communal association must also be accepted and respected as a debate point. But it is incumbent upon us as critics to show how the data we might throw into the mix is not just anecdotal or wishful thinking, but has enough power to challenge the main narrative of Putnam's story. I'd ask you: why does population density diminish communal assocationalism, when actually the intuitive position is to think that the more people you have in smaller spaces, the more likely they are to network and to develop social capital?

It isn't true that Putnam doesn't address alternative explanations. In fact, in Chapter 9 of the book, he specifically looks at what he calls three "countertrends" to the thesis of his book, ranging from small group associations through internet associations. He even acknowledges the countertrend observed in "the vigorous growth of grass roots activity among evangelical conservatives." In fact, when such countertrends emerge, he engages them and includes them in the analysis. At the end of Chapter 9, Putnam writes: "These diverse countercurrents are a valuable reminder that society evolves in multiple ways simultaneously. These exceptions to the generally depressing story I have recounted alert us to a heartening potential for civic renewal." But he still contended that the preponderance of the data reaffirmed the dominance of that "depressing story" as the rule.

Alternatively, did Putnam think of every possible alternative explanation to the "Bowling alone" phenomenon? No. But that doesn't diminish the validity of his methodology or the case that he makes based on the available data.

But I am rambling now. I guess, Eric, what I'm saying, in short, is that, without even investigating the source of the claims in the article, it is a bit precipitous to attribute purely partisan and ideological motivations behind research that suggests conclusions with which we might not want to believe are true. Unlike what your original comment implied, Putnam and Campbell are not hacks and their research is not hackery.

eric said...

Fair enough. I am admittedly cynical about nearly all "polling research" cited by news organizations, especially when it has to do with social trends. The media outlets have just become too partisan to be trusted at face value (and that includes the conservative outlets who love to report on research indicating Republicans are happier and have better sex lives than Democrats).

It has been a long time since I read Putnam's book, but I do recall being disapointed in it because he had such an extensive collection of data to report on but continually infered things that were clearly personal opinions without distinguishing those biases from the data. You are probably right that he never claimed his arguments were scientifically verified and foolproof, but the mixture of scrupulously acquired scientific data with personally biased explanations for the data's existence made it hard to tell when he was or was not claiming his ideas were scientifically validated. The book had a feel of "because I am a scientist, allow me to tell you what science has to say about this phenomenon" when in fact what it was presenting was a collection of personal opinions and random observatins about scientifically collected data. The differece is subtle but important, because while the data itself clearly falls within the bounds of science, the rest of it is pure speculation that can be made just as well (and with as much authority) by the layman as the scientist. By contrast, I recall Steven Levitt's 'Freakonomics' book was usually quick to distinguish between the scientifically validated data he works with and the (often controversial) ideas he infers from it. Social scientists, who already suffer from a credibility problem with the public, should always be careful about that.

For instance, you say it is intuitive to believe the more people inhabit a smaller space, the more likely they are to interact socially. To me, it seems intuitive that when you have more people in a smaller space, social situations (espcially formal ones that involve power hiarchies and social dominance) are likely to become more stressful, and hence more likely to be avoided. We can look to Putnam's book for scientific confirmation that populations have become more dense, and that people engage in less community centered activities, but without more data than he provided, the reasons *why* are anybody's guess, and yours is as good as mine (or his).

Huck said...

Eric - Excellent comments. A few follow-up thoughts of my own. First, as bothersome as it is for me to have to deal with conservatives throwing up in my face the research that shows conservatives are more happy and have better sex lives than liberals, I am loathe to simply disregard the research just because I don't like what it has to say. It actually may be true. And if it is, I'd want to understand why. I'd want to take a look at the methodology and research integrity behind the data to understand whether the conclusions drawn from it are to be taken seriously. And even if I find flaws or omissions in the research that call into question some aspects of a conclusion, that wouldn't mean the whole argument is bunk if the methodology is otherwise strong. It just may need to be refined/revised.

Take, for instance, our own different impressions of what's intuitive behavior for people in the context of growing population density. Both, I think, are reasonable ways to think about it; but to understand whether one is more correct than the other, gathering data to test each is necessary. And we may actually find that both are true under certain conditions and in certain contexts.

Putnam's intellectual honesty in "Bowling Alone" is clearly laid out in his first chapter, when he likens his project to the uncertainty that plagues all of this type of research that tries to generalize about behavior from incomplete data from the past. He says that the argument he posits in his book is his best interpretation of the data -- that the preponderance of the evidence seems to point to his story as the most likely and most broadly sensical (he likens it to efforts to study the changes in the physical environment of the past and to hypothesize thus on the causes of such changes); and so he acknowledges its weakness and thus invites criticism. That's what the research process is all about.

At some level, we all have to interpret data the best way we know how and give some meaning to it.